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£500,000 heritage centre ends up as £10,000 library ‘display’

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Within months a £500,000 centre for historic finds from one of the country’s most exciting archaeological digs has been scrapped, to be replaced by a £10,000 ‘heritage display’ in a library.

The Must Farm excavation site between Peterborough and Whittlesey archaeologists uncovered one of the best-preserved settlements dating to the Late Bronze Age (1000 – 800BC).

Log boats, fish traps and a wooden platform were among early discoveries and full excavation revealed three roundhouses and their domestic contents in extraordinary detail.

And most remarkable of all the dig revealed that within months of the settlement being built, the houses caught fire and collapsed into the mud and water below – “A Bronze Age Pompeii”.

The site was exposed as a result of the extraction of clay for brick production by Forterra (formerly London Brick and then Hanson).

Whittlesey had hoped and planned for a heritage centre to house many of the finds.

But with rocketing costs – new estimates put it at up to £1m – the idea has been scrapped.

Which meant that up to £500,000 allocated to the project from the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA) was up for grabs, although £47,000 of it has already been spent on heritage centre design costs.

Road safety campaigner Peter Baxter’s perfectly legal – but effective – plan to disrupt traffic through Whittlesey in September which he hopes will be a warning shot across the bow for local councillors.
Mr Baxter has lobbied for years to get councillors and highways chiefs alongside to reduce the number of HGVs passing through his hometown.
Whittlesey, Peterborough
Wednesday 28 September 2022.
Picture by Terry Harris.

Last week CAPCA began to resolve what happens some of the cash when they agreed to:

1) Community basketball / tennis / netball facilities; lighting upgrade and secure fencing (£55,000)

2) Add to the existing solar PV provision on the Manor Leisure Centre swimming pool building to improve sustainability (£110,000)

3) Improvements to the marketplace, removal of trip hazards, and consideration of improved power supplies for community events and the market (£20,000)

4) Development of a heritage display in the local library featuring one of the Must Farm Long Boats or a replica, and other items from the dig alongside interpretation boards telling the story of Must Farm and as part of Whittlesey’s heritage (£10,000).

The bulk of the unspent cash, £255,750, could be spent on “progressing a strategic outline business case” for Whittlesey southern relief road.

The request was put forward by Fenland District Council after being agreed by the Growing Fenland Team (GFT) in Whittlesey.

Town councillor Roy Gerstner explained that Whittlesey and the three other Fenland market towns were each allocated £1M from CAPCA and a committee was formed locally through the Growing Fenland Partnership.

In Whittlesey’s case that consisted of three councillors and five members of the public.

He said a full consultation was given for the public to put forward ideas of what they wanted to do with the monies.

Cllr Gerstner said both he, Cllr David Mason (town mayor) and some other councillors wanted the £455,000 left over allocated to the Manor and to support sport and young people.

However, the Growing Fenland Group (Whittlesey) had a meeting where Cllr Mason was asked to attend and put forward the ‘Manor’ proposal, but this received no support.

He said the group’s option included the relief road/bypass strategic business case and this formed part of the response to CAPCA.

“Disappointed – yes very much so,” said Cllr Gerstner.

But he promised to continue to campaign to get more funding for the Manor and youth work in the town.

“Some councillors have received a vast amount of abuse because of this decision,” he wrote on his blog.

“I do not wish anyone especially councillors to be subjected to abuse – I have had it myself. Have a grown-up argument by all means… robust – yes – but abuse no.”

CAPCA will consider the funding application from Fenland District Council in January 2023 for £255,750 towards the relief road business case.

Surprisingly, in the Growing Fenland final report on Whittlesey, the relief road was not among the eight proposals recommended following a survey.

Interactive highways signs to improve travel and safety in and around Whittlesey are now fully operational in the town.

The report listed these “eight connected interventions that will make a lasting difference to Whittlesey”

1: Enhancing the market

2: New uses for the square to create a more vibrant ‘piazza’ feel.

3: Heritage Visitor Centre.

4: Developing the Heritage Walk

5: New town website

6: Access to educational opportunities – including easier to access to access “educational institutions in Peterborough and Alconbury Weald”.

7: Local skills partnership – a new forum for all those with an interest in skills in the town.

8: Transport improvement package.

“When asked to identify their favourite ideas, respondents opted for a fairly wide spread of preferences, with no one option emerging as the clear favourite,” says the report.

Growing Fenland Final Report present to Combined Authority

Road safety campaigner Peter Baxter’s legal – but effective – plan to disrupt traffic through Whittlesey which he hopes will be a warning shot across the bow for local councillors.
Mr Baxter has lobbied for years to get councillors and highways chiefs alongside to reduce the number of HGVs passing through his hometown.,
Whittlesey, Peterborough
Wednesday 28 September 2022.
Picture by Terry Harris.

“The three options with most preferences were: enhancing the market (37%); improving access to education opportunities (35%); and new uses for the square (33%).

“The second grouping of expressed preferences, garnering around a quarter of responses were: new cycling infrastructure and pathways (28%); exploring new uses for the pits (27%); exploring the scope for pedestrianising Market Street (25%); and developing a new Heritage Visitor Centre (22%).”

However, Domenico Cirillo, Business Programmes and Business Board Manager, told a CAPCA board meeting last week that a southern relief road had been identified by the town team” as a major infrastructure priority.

His report said: “As part of the public consultation for the 2022-23 CPCA Budget review, more than 80% of the responses received called for the Whittlesey Relief Road to be progressed.

“Following a positive inception report with the recommendation that the scheme be progressed, and a request is made that the remaining £255,750 be allocated towards developing the Strategic Outline Business Case.

“If accepted by the Combined Authority Board, this would be subject to Fenland District Council completing an application which would be assessed against value for money and strategic fit.

“This would then be considered for approval by the Combined Authority Board in January 2023.”

The idea for a relief road goes back many years and was spotlighted in the FDC Whittlesey Market Town Strategy 2012.

In 2018 Growing Fenland introduced Coates to Cardea as a desired route.

Town councillor Chris Boden, also leader of FDC, successfully campaigned in 2020 for the town council to spend £7,000 on a preliminary study.

Cllr Chris Boden. PHOTO CREDIT: The City of London Corporation

The study concluded last year that “there is sufficient evidence to justify scheme progression, and it is recommended that the scheme proceeds to the next stage evaluation, namely, Strategic Outline Business Case.”

Cllr Boden’s idea stems from release of the Fenland Local Plan six years ago that proposed Whittlesey should have a further 11,000 homes by 2031.

It regarded a relief road as vital.

What is certain from recent developments, is that a heritage centre is now a dead duck.

It had been intended the centre would be built essentially to tell the Story of Whittlesey from Bronze Age to present day.

The plans included building a network of local organisations such as museums, societies, and community groups to use the facilities for exhibition purposes.

The site would have utilised land given free of charge by Forterra (formerly Hanson Brick) close to the original Must Farm location and directly adjacent to the Kings Dyke Nature Reserve.

But the cost has put a block on a new heritage centre for Whittlesey.

Must Farm excavations

Although Whittlesey town council had offered £8,000 towards it, the most recent report from Fenland District Council conceded “the project will not give good value for money to the taxpayer”.

Work on the design of the centre had been underway since 2021 but halted in March 2022.

“Whilst a design now exists, there is a substantial gap in funding between the expected cost of the new building and the funding available,” says Fenland Council.

“Other funders have been considered with no success – the funding gap is too large and requires a national funder such as the Heritage Lottery Fund.”

Our survey says- chart from Growing Fenland report by FDC

In February, the Heritage Lottery Fund refused a bid for £244,000 towards it – around 28 per cent of the projected cost.

Fenland Council says with the current climate in the construction market, alongside the abnormal inflation seen in the UK, any build project would need to add in a substantial inflationary contingency.

It would also need to add in “contingencies for unforeseen issues encountered during the build.

“These considerations increase the funding gap further.

“The project team has considered the location and the gap in funding, alongside market conditions and believe that continuing with the project at this time is unlikely to produce a facility in a timely, affordable manner.”

Fenland Council says: “The project will not give good value for money to the taxpayer and work on the heritage centre has been suspended since early summer 2022.

“Additional supportive gap funding will not change the poor value for money that the project would represent in the current construction climate and this option has been discounted”.

The council says various ideas were considered including “relocating the heritage centre to a more central position within the town and reducing the scope of the design.

“Whilst this is possible, the facility that would be developed as a result is unlikely to be able to provide the facilities necessary in an effective heritage centre and would not meet community or visitor expectations.

“The project group has discounted this option.”

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